Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in a referendum last month has left mixed views across the globe, with economists, politicians and armchair critics continuing the debate as to whether the decision to bring to an end the 43-year-old UK-EU relationship was the best move for both parties. But despite the ongoing debate, the UK will remain a strong bilateral partner both politically and economically to Namibia, the UK High Commissioner to Namibia has told The Patriot.
Joanne Lomas, who took office last year in Namibia, said UK does not underestimate the challenges or the complexity of leaving the EU, but it [UK] is determined to make it a success both for the UK and the EU, further indicating that there is a strong belief that the UK can emerge as a stronger nation.
Lomas responded to questions on Brexit posed by The Patriot’s Editor Mathias Haufiku. The questions were mainly premised on the way forward regarding Namibia and UK relations and the future of UK’s access to the EU Single Market after Brexit.
The world is still trying to make sense of the British people’s decision to leave the EU. Do you think it could have been avoided and was it the best decision to make?
The decision to hold a referendum was based on the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment during the 2015 general election campaign. Once elected, the Government was of course committed to that promise. Turnout, at over 72 percent, was higher than any UK general election this century and there was a clear margin of support to leave the EU. The British Government is determined to honour the outcome even though many members of its own members campaigned to remain. I think it’s a reflection of our strong democratic tradition that the vote was respected and we have moved so swiftly to form a new Government, led by a new Prime Minister, who is already preparing to negotiate our way out. We don’t underestimate the challenges or the complexity of doing that. But we are determined to make it a success both for the UK and the EU; ultimately we believe the UK can emerge as a stronger nation.
In any referendum over separation, the independence side appeals to the patriotic heart. Would you say those who voted to leave did so with a clear mind on the total impact of Brexit or was it more of a patronage vote towards their country?
People voted to leave for a variety of reasons. Yes, some did want the UK to take back some of the sovereignty they felt the UK had lost to the EU. Many others were concerned about the impact of freedom of movement and the pressures on wages and on our public services. In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May therefore promised to work not for the privileged few but those who were struggling to get by. She also committed to work with all sides, including the devolved administrations (of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) to ensure broad buy in to the exit negotiations.
How might the UK’s departure from the EU affect relations with Namibia, both on the economic and political fronts?
Politically, I do not expect any major changes; we have strong bilateral and Commonwealth links with Namibia.
The core values we share with our EU partners of democracy, good governance and rule of law will not change either. Economically, the UK will of course be negotiating its own trade agreements, most likely on a regional level. It’s too early to say what those deals will look like but what I would say is that the UK is a long term supporter of open and free trade and I do not expect that to change, in fact, quite the opposite.
Bilateral trade between Namibia and the United Kingdom has been on the increase in recent years. Do you see trade increasing or decreasing in the aftermath of Brexit? Please substantiate your position.
Our bilateral trade is approximately N$2 billion each year. UK interests have traditionally been centred on mining, oil and gas exploration and tourism. I’m keen to get British companies looking at the wider opportunities out here, particularly related to infrastructure development. What’s going to be important here though is not the UK’s membership (or not) of the EU but the attractiveness of Namibia’s investment climate. Many companies and business organisations, including British ones, are warning of the risk that the New Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework (NEEEF) will discourage investment. There is clearly going to be a challenge to ensuring that Namibia can achieve its very laudable objectives of decreasing poverty and inequality while continuing to encourage much-needed foreign investment.
Several Namibian economists have suggested that the British- Namibia relationship and the European Union as a whole are best served by Britain’s continued presence at the heart of the union. What is your view on this stance?
There are many people both within and outside the UK who were disappointed by the referendum result, but the British people have taken a democratic decision. We will remain a strong supporter of the EU and will maintain very close links with our European partners.
We are not leaving Europe, only the EU! Our challenge is to make sure this happens as painlessly and as constructively as possible.
What would be your role as representative of the British government in Namibia during the Brexit negotiation period as well as after the negotiations?
I see myself as having two key roles. The first will be to explain and to reassure the Namibian Government and its people that we will remain a strong bilateral partner both politically and economically. There are understandably many questions people want to ask me about Brexit and my job is to provide as clear a picture as I can. The second role will be to ensure that Namibia’s views and concerns are understood in London. I’m doing that now and will continue to do so particularly as trade negotiations get started.
There seems to be clear support for agreeing on an arrangement, an ‘EEA Minus’, meaning the UK would join the European Economic Area provided it gets some exceptions – like freedom of movement. Is this possible or wishful thinking?
The debate about access to the free market versus the need to control migration was at the heart of the referendum campaign and will continue to resonate as we negotiate our exit. It’s too early to say where those negotiations will end up but they will clearly be central to the political talks.
The UK could lose its preferential access to 53 markets outside the EU with which the EU has Free Trade Agreements. These free trade agreements could take years for the UK to renegotiate on a bilateral basis. What do you think should be done to avoid a backlash for the UK on the international trade arena?
The UK sees this is an opportunity to enter into its own bilateral trade negotiations based on its long-standing support for open and fair trade. Of course, this is going to take time and we don’t underestimate the challenges – but in the long-term we see real benefits for the UK and our trading partners.
Lastly, is Brexit reversible or is this the end of the 43-year-old EU-UK relationship?
The Government is clear that Brexit means Brexit. We have a new Government and a new Prime Minister who has already in the process of setting up the institutions, which will lead our negotiations to exit the EU. The question is not whether but how we will exit, given we want this to work for all parties.